Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story feels nothing like any other Star Wars film. At first, that’s jarring, even off-putting. Once you settle into its particular rhythm, it’s exhilarating.
There is no opening crawl of yellow text setting up the story. There are no Kurosawa-esque wipes to transition between scenes. The story isn’t always linear, making use of flashbacks and time jumps. The action is more diffuse, spread out across several different planets and, more crucially, several different characters. And yet, Rogue One is still recognizably a Star Wars story: complicated without becoming impenetrable, gritty without losing a sense of adventure and wonder, downbeat but not ultimately hopeless. It is a near-perfect mix of familiar and unfamiliar.
It’s hard to imagine a Star Wars film being anything other than a safe bet at the box office – even the divisive prequel films were hits, financially – but Rogue One had a monumental task ahead of it, and took daring risks. It’s the first film to take place outside the core story of the Skywalker family, and its place in the timeline (another prequel to the original film?) will be confusing to the uninitiated. Its cast is full of new faces, and they all die by the end. Think about that – when was the last time a multi-million dollar Hollywood spectacle killed off its entire core cast? Most importantly, Rogue One isn’t content to retread old ground. As every Star Wars movie has, and as every Star Wars film must, it expands the world and tells us something new about the Star Wars universe.
The “cinematic universe” has become Hollywood’s new favorite trend, but until now, only Marvel Studios has been able to pull it off, with Warner Brothers-backed DC floundering in their wake, and several other less-than-promising contenders waiting in the wings. Transformers: The Last Knight aims (threatens?) to kick off a series of interconnected blockbusters based on Hasbro toys, while The Mummy tests the waters for a universe of Universal Monsters. Marvel built up to their success with a careful accumulation of effective but largely homogenous films that established a singular aesthetic and storytelling style, while DC’s more idiosyncratic, “auteur-driven” approach has laid a shaky foundation where the right hand doesn’t seem to know what the left is doing.From L to R: “The Clone Wars” (2012), “Rebels” (2017), “Rogue One” (2016)
Lucasfilm seems to have found the Aristotelian mean when it comes to the building of an imaginary world. Thanks to a dedicated “story group,” the Star Wars universe is more cohesive and interconnected than ever. Rogue One and the animated show Rebels, set in the same period of galactic history, are cross-pollinated, peppered with nods to each other both big and small: ships and droids from Rebels appear in the background of Rogue One, while Forest Whitaker is set to reprise his role as Saw Gerrera in animated form. (The character was first introduced in the animated The Clone Wars.) This cohesion, however, hasn’t resulted in micro-management, nor has it come at the expense of individual artistic voices. Both of the post-Lucas films have showcased the unique strengths and weaknesses of their respective directors.
Star Wars was an intensely personal outpouring of George Lucas’ interests and obsessions, filtered through the lens of his reverence for his cinematic forebears, and I’ve written at length about how I believe The Force Awakens was the same for J.J. Abrams. In that essay, I argued that if Star Wars films are to keep their vitality, they must maintain that spirit of personal investment and respect for. They must display a love for filmic tradition while bearing the fingerprints of an artist, not just a brand name.
Thankfully – despite panicked rumors that reshoots were taking the reins away from the director and putting them in the hands of the studio – Rogue One feels like a Gareth Edwards film through and through. And while The Force Awakens introspectively cross-examined Star Wars itself, Rogue One goes back further, to the classic war films that influenced Lucas. In particular, Rogue One shares its DNA with “men on a mission” films such as The Dirty Dozen, The Guns of Navarone, Bridge on the River Kwai (cited by Rian Johnson as an influence on the upcoming Episode VIII), Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, and – more recently – Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, with which Rogue One shares more than superficial similarities.“Rogue One” (2016)
Edwards’ prowess at conveying a sense of scale is nearly unrivaled amongst his contemporaries. His remarkably assured debut, 2010’s Monsters, effectively juxtaposed an intimate, African Queen-esque story against vast landscapes and enormous creatures rendered on a minuscule budget. (Edwards directed and shot the film himself, and was also responsible for the visual effects.) His 2014 remake of Godzilla is, in my mind, one of the decade’s most daringly conceived and ambitiously executed blockbusters, due in large part to the titanic scope of its visuals and the semi-Spielbergian slow-burn of Edwards’ direction, which frames the entire film as a series of gradually building reveals. Few auteurs working today use visual effects this well. Edwards frequently relies on a prosaic, quasi-documentarian shooting style to invest his CGI colossi with weight – many of Godzilla’s most effective moments are shot from ground-level or through windows. However, he also knows when to forego verisimilitude for poetry, pulling back to wide shots that reveal the breadth of his vision. (Alexandre Desplat composed Godzilla’s excellent score and was set to collaborate with Edwards again on Rogue One. Giacchino’s work here compliments the film well, but I would’ve loved to hear Desplat’s version.)“Godzilla” (2014)
With all this in mind, it comes as no surprise that Rogue One boasts some of the most impressive, evocative images to be found in blockbuster cinema. The Death Star has never felt so huge, and Edwards constantly frames ships as tiny specks traveling across the gargantuan contours of huge planets. He never loses sight of the fact that the galaxy far, far away is a huge, near-limitless place; Rogue One takes us to more planets than any other Star Wars film except Revenge of the Sith, from its opening on a striking world of black sand and green grass to a tropical idyll that recalls WWII’s Pacific Theater. That penchant for scale doesn’t come at the cost of small details, though, and the production design for Rogue One does an exceptional job recapturing the grimy, lived-in textures of the original films. The crowd scenes here are vividly populated and lovingly captured, as lavishly realized as any period piece. Of the many childhood memories evoked by Rogue One, some of my favorites are of hours spent poring over the tiniest details of Dorling Kindersley’s Star Wars Visual Dictionaries and feeling entirely persuaded that the galaxy far, far away was a real, living, breathing place.
For all Edwards’ skill as a crafter of moods and images, though, he’s come under fire for being too clinical or distant, too preoccupied with the big picture to persuasively capture the human element. I would argue that Monsters, Godzilla, and now Rogue One reveal not a failure in this regard, but a different approach purposefully rooted in Edwards’ strength as a world-builder.
One of the things Star Wars is most beloved for is the strength of its iconic characters. Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Han Solo, Princess Leia, R2-D2, and C-3PO are all household names, and many – myself included – are willing to overlook the weaknesses of Abrams’ The Force Awakens for the strength of its cast. Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and Poe Dameron are boldly rendered, memorable and full of charisma, and if Abrams never gives the Starkiller Base as much presence as Edwards gives the Death Star, perhaps that’s indicative of a choice to remain laser-focused on the human drama of the characters aboard the base. Abrams is so tunnel-visioned that as The Force Awakens’ climactic lightsaber duel occurs, the efforts of Resistance pilots to destroy the base are nearly perfunctory; in his vision of the Star Wars cosmos, galactic events are more a symbol of interpersonal conflicts than anything, as when the snuffing out of a star acts as a visual representation of the light going out of Ben Solo’s soul before the murder of his father.
Rogue One, in contrast, swaps those priorities. In Godzilla, Edwards was concerned with humanity more as a threatened species than as a collection of individuals. This sparked complaints that the film’s cast was wooden, the characters flat, and that Edwards’ vision, while technically impressive, was cold and inhuman. I’d argue against this, based on how attached he is to the human perspective, and how the film evinces a fascination with the way we might perceive events on a scale that so dwarfs us. For an ostensibly inhuman film, Godzilla is great at evoking universally human emotions of awe, dread, terror, and even wonder.“Rogue One” (2016)
Rogue One advances this interest in individuals primarily as cogs in a machine, or extensions of an organism, and as such it’s hardly a surprise that the characters here are not so archetypal, not drawn in such broad and colorful strokes as we expect from a Star Wars movie. One could argue, with some basis, that Rogue One has two primary characters, the Rebellion and the Empire. But that would be too simple, and would fail to do justice to the film’s exceptional cast and the strength of their performances. These characters don’t go out of their way to earn your affection, but they really work: they come to life in small moments and carefully observed nuances that suggest years of history. What we have here is a film that charts the middle ground between Godzilla’s collectivism and The Force Awakens’ individualism. It is concerned with its characters as individual people, yes, but above all it is fascinated with the way these people are confronted by the necessity of serving something larger.
While the original films and The Force Awakens largely drew their characters in black and white (Lucas’ unfairly maligned prequels are another story for another time), Rogue One delineates its cast into nearly indistinguishable shades of grey. Its protagonists, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), are weary and haunted. Luna embodies his character with a steely conviction: his introductory scene, a startlingly brutal beat that feels lifted from Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows, is one of the film’s very best character moments. Jones does a lot of fine, wordless work in her early scenes, before subtly charting the growing feeling behind Jyn’s numb, hollowed-out façade. The emotional undercurrent of her journey ties back to Edwards’ interest in the continuity of human experience between generations; as the protagonist of Godzilla was spurred to action by his father’s work, so Jyn ultimately dedicates her life to preserving her father’s legacy. The final moments between Jones and Luna are remarkably acted, conveying an intimacy that is surprisingly and achingly palpable.
Drily sarcastic droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) is the closest thing the film has to a scene-stealer, but his deadpan deliveries elicit more chuckles than belly laughs – a finely calibrated choice, so as not to unbalance the ensemble. As Imperial defector Bodhi Rook, Riz Ahmed brings an endearing, jittery energy to a cast that runs the risk of being too stoic for its own good. Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) is given the least to do, but his friendship with Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) animates both characters.
Elsewhere, experienced thespians bring surprising weight to smaller but equally crucial roles. The excellent Mads Mikkelsen invests Galen Erso (Jyn’s father, a guilt-ridden Robert Oppenheimer stand-in) with a quiet, helpless gravitas. As primary antagonist Director Krennic, Ben Mendelsohn is as slimy and despicable as a Star Wars villain should be, but is also surprisingly pathetic at times, chafing against his part as a cog in the Imperial machine. When they’re onscreen together, Mendelsohn and Mikkelsen are electric, suggesting years of tortured history between these two men.“Rogue One” (2016)
Then there’s Darth Vader. Possibly cinema’s most iconic villain, Vader’s five minutes of screentime are among the film’s most discussed, and they are excellent. Edwards plays into the myth of Vader sparingly and to great effect. At one point, Krennic is framed as a tiny white speck dwarfed by the Dark Lord’s iconic shadow – a grandiose, painterly image recalling silent cinema. In the film’s climax, the Dark Lord is an almost unstoppable force of nature, like something out of a horror movie. But Edwards is careful to highlight Anakin’s humanity as well: we first see him at his most vulnerable, a deformed and scarred man enshrined in a castle built atop the site of his ultimate loss. (There’s even a touch of Vader’s gleefully bleak humor, in a line that has irked some but played well to me.)
As for that climactic hallway scene – much of the discussion has revolved around how satisfying it is to see Vader let loose onscreen, while others have decried it as mere fan service, superfluous to the story at hand. Both views miss the scene’s crucial purpose as an encapsulation of Rogue One’s thesis, the way it handles characters and themes. In the film’s final act, Edwards pulls further and further away from the core ensemble to frame the climactic battle as a titanic clash between larger entities. In the hallway scene, as the faceless Rebel soldiers scramble to get the plans away from Vader, this shift in perspective becomes dramatically concrete. Galen’s pet name for his daughter, “Star-Dust,” recalls the way Carl Sagan’s Cosmos frames individual humans as star-stuff, components of the larger universe to which they are inextricably tied. As the main characters we’ve come to know decide that the Rebellion is more important than their individual lives, the film zooms out to affirm their belief, offering a more radically self-sacrificial vision of heroism than we typically see on the big screen.“Godzilla” (2014)
“Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed,” Darth Vader intoned in the original Star Wars. “The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.” The scale of Edwards’ films has never been empty spectacle; the size of his canvas has always displayed an interest in man’s relationship to higher powers, a preoccupation with the interplay between technology’s destructive capabilities and the seeming omnipotence of a kind of cosmic (or natural) order. Both Monsters and Godzilla interrogated this framework and came away with moments of unexpected beauty – hundred-foot tall aliens dancing, the oddly peaceful detonation of an atomic bomb, serene ocean surfaces recalling Malick’s Thin Red Line. Here, Edwards makes the numinous, near-spiritual quality that hovered at the edges of the frame in his earlier films explicit; as our editor Joshua Gibbs wrote in an excellent piece for CiRCE, Rogue One is a religious film.“Rogue One” (2016)
This religious sensibility is embodied by Yen’s blind monk, Chirrut Îmwe, who repeatedly chants, “I am with the Force and the Force is with me.” He lives on Jedha, a kind of Star Wars stand-in for Mecca, described as a “holy city” and populated by fallen statues of Jedi. The scenes here recall the real-world Middle East; we are told that, as in Israel, a temple has been destroyed, and a sequence of urban warfare by “extremist” Rebels consciously frames them as Jihadists. (One of Rogue One’s most significant drawbacks is that it does little with this correlation.) The Empire’s strip-mining of the planet for Kyber crystals to power the Death Star – which, we’re told, also power the Jedi’s lightsabers – is a co-opting of the mystical very much in line with the thematic conversation of Edwards’ other films. Indeed, lightsabers are conspicuously absent, with the exception of Vader’s red blade: here perhaps more than any other Star Wars film, the Force is something inscrutable and transcendent, far more than a video game power-up to be accessed and used. “I fear nothing,” Chirrut says, “For all is as the Force wills it.” The characters here don’t bend the Force to their will; they bend to the Force’s will. Fate has always been a major theme in the Star Wars films – in Revenge of the Sith, structured like a Greek tragedy, Anakin’s attempts to avoid a prophesied fate were precisely what brought it to fruition, and in Return of the Jedi, Vader and the Emperor appealed to Luke that it was his destiny to serve the Empire, only to be rejected. The way Rogue One tells its story is far from fatalist – the characters here still make choices – but there is more of a sense here that they are agents of the Force’s will, accepting their destinies, submitting to a higher power rather than choosing their own paths. When a senator at a key briefing expresses skepticism over the Rebels’ odds, Jyn counters, “What chance do we have? The question is what choice?” The heroes of Rogue One are people responding to a moral obligation, with terms dictated by a situation much bigger than they are.From L to R: “Rogue One” (2016), “Godzilla” (2014)
Both Godzilla and Rogue One conclude with spectacular demonstrations of man’s technological destructive power. (Notably, both climactic battles feature prayers uttered at significant moments.) The tropical planet Scarif, where a climactic Death Star blast engulfs the screen in white light, directly recalls the Bikini Atoll nuclear test imagery that opened Godzilla. In both cases, technological attempts to dominate nature are undercut and overwhelmed, instead giving way to the supremacy of a sublime cosmic order that does not condescend to human will but is nevertheless a cause for hope and even comfort. “Do you think anybody’s listening?” Cassian asks Jyn as they transmit the plans to the waiting Rebel fleet. “Yes,” she responds. “Someone’s out there.” The nuclear bomb cannot kill Godzilla, and the power of the Death Star, terrifying as it may be, is ultimately insignificant next to the power of the Force.From L to R: “Rogue One” (2016), “Star Wars” (1977)
To an extent, all Star Wars films since the original have been inversions and reversals of that first story, and Rogue One is no different. In Lucas’ film, the protagonist was a farm boy who dreamed of excitement away from his family. Here, the protagonist’s dreams are of a farm and a family ripped prematurely away. Important staples are retained – perhaps most prominently, the redemption of fathers by their children – but repurposed or muted. Iconography of good and evil are conflated and upended: with his cyborg suit and labored breathing, Saw Gerrera is a kind of Vader, whose tactics bring the Rebellion dangerously close to the Empire. (The difference between Gerrera’s extremists and the Rebellion proper could have been more clearly delineated, but one beat tells us what we need to know: when Saw’s men open fire on Stormtroopers, Jyn must save a crying child caught in the crossfire.) Krennic’s stark white suit and flowing cape are a flipside of the black robes we expect from our Star Wars villains. At one point, Jyn tells Cassian he’s no better than a Stormtrooper.“Rogue One” (2016)
What differentiates the Rebellion from the Empire? The divide was clear in Lucas’ original film, and Edwards starts from a place of obfuscation before charting a course to that clarity. As Rogue One begins, both good and evil are scrambling, infighting. The first two acts are replete with instances of concealment and miscommunication between allies on both sides. The agents of the Empire squabble, jockeying for their Emperor’s approval. The centerpiece of the film’s second act, a Rebel strike against an Imperial base on the rainy planet of Eadu, is almost as deliberately murky as the climax of Attack of the Clones, where faceless armies of clones and droids became indistinguishable in a sandstorm. Yet something changes over the course of the film. The two sides become more polarized, and the battle lines become clear. The Empire, at the height of its power, becomes an ouroboros, consuming its own tail – note how the Rebels win their space battle by crashing two Star Destroyers into one another. The Rebellion, fractured and split when the film begins, ultimately rallies to become the Good Guys we know and love from the original films.
The contrast is most poignantly realized in the film’s closing minutes. As the Death Star prepares to fire on its own allies, Jyn and Cassian embrace, peacefully facing their imminent death together. Meanwhile, a wounded Krennic spends his final moments looking to the sky, where his superior is readying his own weapon to destroy him. For all its power, the Empire is self-defeating, as evil always is. The good, sacrificing for a righteous cause, live on beyond themselves. By framing the original Star Wars as the end of a long and desperate road, Rogue One meaningfully captures a galaxy in transition, from the cynically convoluted to the mythically simple, from hopelessness to hopefulness. I wouldn’t want every Star Wars movie to capture this feeling – but I’m glad this one does.